Working together makes good things happen

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

The cooperative effort between the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and state and federal archeologists to examine recently discovered human remains revealed some interesting history of our area's first residents.

The remains had originally been discovered last summer by Gene Palm's sixth-graders on a field trip. Palm, who teaches at Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, called his old anthropology professor Alan Boraas, which eventually led to a call to the tribe itself.

From there, scientists started their investigation.

Last month, scientists returned the remains to the tribe and shared what they'd learned from them. In a presentation to tribal members, researchers say the remains tell the tale of a 19th century healthy Athabascan woman, probably in her mid-30s. She probably lived during the period of Russian colonization, and may very well have been a member of a community converted to Russian Orthodoxy, when Athabascans abandoned their tradition of cremation and began burying their dead.

Such windows into ancestry are always valuable to any culture. Understanding where we've come from almost always helps us as we continue our paths forward.

Perhaps just as significant, however, is how all this historical knowledge came about -- through present-day cultural cooperation. In this case, a teacher grabbed an opportunity to show his students how to approach and respect such a discovery. The Kenaitze seized the opportunity to work with archaeologists from the state Office of History and Archaeology, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kenai Peninsula College. Folks from each group worked together to unravel the history mystery.

Descendants of North America's first inhabitants are understandably wary when approached with Western ideas of cultural examination. Historically, that examination has resulted in confiscation. Burial remains and archeological discoveries find their way to museums, laboratories or private collections and are kept there for reasons completely foreign to the culture that lost possession of them.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was meant to reverse centuries of that practice and return cultural items and human remains to their respective peoples. But here on the Kenai Peninsula, that law never had to come into play.

"It was very interesting and I appreciate all the hard work that went into this," said Kenaitze Tribal Council member Jon Ross, in our story last week. "It was a good thing to look at, to study, and to think about our history."

And, we might add, to do it cooperatively.

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